This is the second in a weekly series evaluating the Red Sox roster by category: infield, outfield, catching, starting pitching, bullpen and DH.
Perhaps it would help to consider the stat line of a center fielder on a Red Sox team that in the not-so-distant past made it to the American League championship round:
.240 BA/.311 OBP/.309 SGP/.620 OPS.
WAR: 1.6. Offensive WAR: -0.6. Defensive WAR: 2.2.
That was Darren Lewis in 1999, when he started 129 games in center field for a Sox team that won 94 games for Jimy Williams, just three wins fewer than the Sox with Ellsbury won for John Farrell in 2013. Lewis ranked 30th in OPS among 32 major-league center fielders who appeared in at least 100 games, 351 percentage points behind Yankees All-Star Bernie Williams (.971), who won a World Series that year.
The point of this elementary exercise? After a season in which they regularly demonstrated a team can be greater than the sum of its parts, the Sox aren’t going to fold their tents just because Ellsbury is now wearing pinstripes. And Ellsbury’s putative replacement, rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., shouldn’t feel like he has to match Ellsbury’s offensive production in order for the Sox to be playing in October.
That’s a good thing, too, given that we can’t be sure how Bradley will fare in his first full season in the big leagues. He batted just .189 in 39 games in his first big-league exposure last season, striking out 31 times in 107 plate appearances. That he struggled should not come as a surprise, considering he began the year before, his first full season of professional baseball, in Class A Salem. He never would have started last season in the big leagues except he had a wonderful camp and David Ortiz was hurt; he had never played higher than Double-A when he opened the season in Yankee Stadium last year.
Bradley was called up four times last season by the Sox and also was hurt a couple of times, so his first season in Triple-A Pawtucket may not be a fully accurate predictor of what he is capable of doing at the major-league level. Nonetheless, he hit 10 home runs in 80 games for the PawSox and posted a .275/.374/.469/.842 slash line, a better snapshot, the Sox believe, of what Bradley is capable of doing at the plate, though it may not happen overnight. And defensively, he clearly has the tools to be an above-average player, and one with a stronger arm than Ellsbury.
When healthy, Ellsbury was an elite player, though his spectacular 2011 season, when he arguably was the most dominant player in the American League, proved to be more the outlier in his seven seasons with the Sox. That season, he hit 32 home runs, the only time in his career he has reached double figures in home runs. He averaged 1 home run per 20.6 at-bats that season, the only season in which he averaged better than 1 home run per 60 at-bats.
Ellsbury is without equal as a base stealer in Sox history, with three seasons of 50 or more steals and a career stolen-base success rate of 84 percent, including 93 percent last year, the best ever for a player stealing 50 or more bases. His .350 career on-base percentage is the eighth highest among Sox center fielders who played at least 500 games (Tris Speaker was No. 1 at .414, with Fred Lynn and Dom DiMaggio both at .383), and his OPS of .789 ranked seventh highest (Lynn was first at .902). His 8.1 WAR in 2011 ranks 22nd among all Sox players, a list topped by Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 (12.4). Only Babe Ruth, by the way, ever had a higher WAR in a single season than Yaz did in ’67; Ruth did it twice, in 1921 and 1923.
Ellsbury's greatest value to the Red Sox, and the one that they may have the most difficulty replacing right away, was as a leadoff man. Think of the impact he made in last October’s division series against the Rays, when he batted .500, scored 7 runs, stole 4 bases and drove in 2 runs.
Farrell said the Sox have a couple of options at leadoff, though moving Dustin Pedroia evidently is not one of them. Farrell said he prefers to leave Pedroia in the No. 2 hole. Shane Victorino is a possibility -- his on-base percentage of .351 was just a tick below Ellsbury (.355), though his walk rate of 4.7 percent was the lowest among Sox regulars (mitigated in part by the 18 times he was hit by a pitch).
Victorino started in just 117 games last season, hamstring and back injuries keeping him out of the starting lineup more than 20 percent of the time (45 games). But his bounce-back performance -- Gold Glove defense, a career-best WAR of 6.2 and boundless energy -- put the lie to those who thought GM Ben Cherington had overpaid by giving him a three-year, $39 million deal.
Victorino is 33 and coming off surgery to release a nerve in his right thumb, but if anything, he takes on even more importance for the Sox with Ellsbury gone. He becomes Plan B in center field if Bradley is hurt or falls on his face, and the Sox need similar offensive production as last year to offset the loss of Ellsbury.
The Sox's left-field platoon of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes, with Mike Carp also contributing meaningful at-bats, could hardly have worked out better. Sox left fielders led the AL in on-base percentage (.356), OPS (.790) and RBIs (101), and were second in runs (93) and slugging percentage (.434). Nava, with his .385 OBP, is in the mix to bat leadoff, while Carp delivered a performance deserving of more playing time (11.9 percent of his plate appearances resulted in an extra-base hit). Rookies Bryce Brentz and Alex Hassan will be ready in Pawtucket if the situation arises to help on either corner.
So, there will be slippage in the outfield without Ellsbury -- drastically so if Bradley fails to live up to notices -- but at this point there’s no reason to believe that it will be fatal to the Sox chances in 2014.
Click HERE for Gordon Edes' infield outlook.